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Consolidating Pinellas judicial offices could prompt sale of historic building

CLEARWATER — A major consolidation of Pinellas County judicial offices would lead to the sell-off of a historic downtown St. Petersburg building.

County officials and Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady want the County Commission to approve a proposal to reduce the judicial system's costs to lease real estate and operate it over the next five years.

"I think this is a win-win all around," said McGrady, who suggested the improvements would meet the county's needs for 20 to 30 years.

But it means pulling out of the 501 Building, formerly the Suwannee hotel at 501 First Ave. N. The historic building, where Babe Ruth once stayed, houses family courts, magistrates and judicial staff. Several non-county leaseholders would not be forced to leave.

The County Commission is expected to vote in December on the consolidation as part of a broader package of construction projects due over the next eight years.

Pinellas purchased the 501 Building for $5.4 million in 2001. Built in 1923, the hotel was converted in office space in the 1980s.

But local governments have downsized during the recession, and Pinellas has a building that real estate director Paul Sacco calls a "money pit." It has required $2.4 million in repairs, including new windows, tenting for termites and an elevator upgrade.

The annual $840,000 operating costs outstrip $541,000 in lease revenue each year, too.

By consolidating space, the county could save nearly $1 million a year in operating costs, Sacco said.

The Property Appraiser's Office values the 117,000-square-foot property at $10 million. Sacco estimates that the county could receive $7 million to $8 million for it, though no appraisal has been done.

It would be several years before the land is sold because other projects need to be completed first to shift courts.

But accomplishing the shifts would cost nearly $30 million itself, including a $9 million parking garage to handle an estimated 600 to 900 additional visitors to the 49th Street N judicial complex.

Some existing court staff would go to the neighboring St. Petersburg judicial tower. In total, about 40 judicial staffers would leave downtown St. Petersburg.

Mayor Bill Foster said he supports the sale because it would put the property back on the tax roll — and City Hall would have more oversight because it would no longer fall under the county's recently passed power to pre-empt local regulations. But City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes the building, questioned the move and said he was unaware of the proposal.

"Every time you lose jobs downtown, that ripples," Nurse said, noting the county would need 30 years to recoup the savings.

"What government ought to be doing is what private businesses do, working on things that pay for themselves in seven or eight years."

Family court would move from Clearwater and St. Petersburg to the 49th Street N complex — a shift that also provoked questions from Commissioner Ken Welch over the effects on lawyers and court patrons. Clerks' offices at the south service center would move, too.

Traffic courts also would move to the 49th Street N judicial complex from the county's North Service Center in Clearwater and the South County Service Center in St. Petersburg.

The change would be done as part of the voter-approved $225 million in jail and court construction. The money comes from the Penny for Pinellas sales taxes.

While commissioners generally supported the overall scheme of projects, several questioned approving the full scale of projects, including $116 million for a new jail detention tower. Commissioner Karen Seel suggested only approving early projects when the board votes because of shifting space needs.

"I just want to make sure we oversee and monitor the jail situation," Seel said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Consolidating Pinellas judicial offices could prompt sale of historic building 11/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 18, 2011 3:47pm]
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